To say 2020 was a particularly contentious year is an understatement. An incurable virus spread. Natural disasters rocked several nations. The rebound from a tough recession occurred slowly. Unexpected factors upended national politics, culminating in one of the most contentious U.S. presidential races in memory.
In fall 1976, when Ebola and Jimmy Carter’s White House run made many uncertain, a bearded puppeteer and his merry band of misfits came on prime-time TV to deliver laughter to the masses. This week, 45 years later, the release of “The Muppet Show” on Disney Plus just may bring some sorely needed happiness and relief to those who need it.
Ultimately broadcast in 102 countries and dubbed in 15 languages, the Jim Henson-produced half-hour became the most popular televised comedy worldwide during its five-year run. The show’s madcap style of vaudeville comedy bridged cultural lines at home and abroad. Indeed it was a hit with rural Midwest families and New York City jazz aficionados alike.
Henson always knew he could make the Muppets — an amalgam of marionette and puppets — stars in their own right. He faced down skeptics during his life. Yet, decades after his characters conquered global entertainment, some still dismiss the Muppets as kiddie fare (it doesn’t help that the quality and originality of Muppets productions have waned).
Undoubtedly, a four-decade-old variety show featuring big-eyed felt puppets alongside bygone entertainers isn’t at the top of everyone’s streaming watchlist, but, giving it a chance, many may soon discover “The Muppet Show” is precisely what they need right now. “The Muppet Show” may surprise you. Here are five things to consider either during your rewatch or trial run of the classic show.
1. Laugh With Them, Laugh At Them
After two decades of trying, Henson finally figured out how to create a hit prime-time American TV show — by filming it in Britain. He struck a unique deal with British talent agent Lew Grade that had him and his crew of Muppet performers living in London for five months a year. Combine an intriguing mix of international guests with Henson’s penchant for risk-taking comedy, and it led to surprises every week on the variety show.
Soviet defector and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev performs a high-flying classical number paired with a towering Muppet figure. Funnyman Steve Martin flips the script — making his guest appearance a series of auditions mingling his comic schtick with a magic act.
Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte merges African rhythms and colorful puppets for his soaring “Turn the World Around (Earth Song).” And legendary comedienne Carol Burnett hams it up while dressed-up as an asparagus. It’s ridiculous, groundbreaking stuff that somehow works.
2. Skip the Uneven Season One At First
Season one of “The Muppet Show” may be almost unrecognizable for those who’ve known the Muppets from their films. Miss Piggy looks and sounds very different. Several segments drag a bit in pacing, most of the guests are relative unknowns, and many of the jokes just don’t land (longtime Muppets writer Jerry Juhl replaced Jack Burns after season one).
This is a rare case where most viewers need not start binge-watching at episode one. Skip forward to season two, when the show begins to hit its stride with guest stars Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, and John Cleese.
Once you’ve enjoyed hours of laughs through season five, circle back to the debut. Key episodes include one with songwriter Paul Williams, who went on to write countless Muppets songs such as “The Rainbow Connection,” and an Emmy Award-winning engagement with actress Rita Moreno.
3. Count On Wild Swings in Music Styles And Show Genres
Any greatest-hits reel for “The Muppet Show” features a parade of big musical numbers, representing dozens of genres. Iconic songwriter Johnny Cash revoices several country standards, crooner Andy Williams forms a barbershop quartet with three Muppets. Motown superstar Diana Ross also brings down the house, whereas Paul Simon lets the Muppets shine in a unique cover of his meandering folk hit “Scarborough Fair.”
Yet an equal charm of the show is how much of it plays out backstage. Similar to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or “30 Rock,” the central conceit is producer and host Kermit trying to get his ragtag troupe to put on a show. Considering Henson performs Kermit, the felt frog’s indomitable efforts to wrangle diva Miss Piggy, daredevil Gonzo, and the rest often play out as meta-commentary on how much goes into making the Muppets work.
4. Recognize Henson Wanted to Take Puppets Beyond Kids
Seven years before “The Muppet Show,” Henson made his mark co-creating the “edutainment” series “Sesame Street” with Children’s Television Workshop. As it grew in popularity, the creator and his team of puppeteers could play in a larger sandbox but were still limited with a focus on teaching letters, numbers, and core learning concepts to young children.
Henson always contended puppets were only a tool to tell any story, including edgy material for older audiences. Famously, the original (unaired) pilot for “The Muppet Show” was actually titled “Sex and Violence” — a pointed message to tell networks: This is not “Sesame Street.” For season one of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975, Henson was invited to incorporate Muppet characters for an ongoing segment that didn’t quite work.
Reflecting such adult-humor sensibilities, “The Muppet Show” includes a few guest stars and segments that may raise eyebrows — such as brunette bombshell Raquel Welch and shock rocker Alice Cooper. Despite its status as landmark family entertainment, parents of young children should probably preview certain episodes.
5. Expect the Unexpected
Henson and the Muppet performers — including his son, Brian Henson, in later seasons — refused to grow complacent with success. New characters were introduced every year, and no guest star ever appeared twice on the show. Sets and visual gags became more elaborate as they honed their craft, and there was a genuine drive to “plus up” every segment, harkening back to Walt Disney’s philosophy of attaining excellence.
Agent 007 himself, Roger Moore, comes on for an extravagant spy-movie parody. Liza Minnelli sends up the murder mystery genre in her appearance. Only months before the release of “The Empire Strikes Back” —mostly filmed on a London soundstage near the London studio used by the Muppets — Mark Hamill and the “Star Wars” droids poke fun at their franchise. Finally, producer and dance choreographer Gene Kelly leads a 1950s throwback in a “Singin’ in the Rain” show-stopper.
When Henson’s team shifted to producing a trilogy of Muppet films, “The Muppet Show” ended its run as a global ratings smash. A dozen or so later TV specials would work to recapture the magic. Whilst many Muppet performers flexed their talents again in “Fraggle Rock” (now on Apple TV Plus) and oddly amusing Brian Henson-produced ’90s sitcom “Dinosaurs” (just released on Disney Plus), those original 120 episodes set a high creative standard.
On May 16, 1990, the sudden death of Jim Henson at age 53 made headlines around the globe. He left a wide-ranging creative legacy, and fans can rejoice that his inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational series is finally available to enjoy once again.